On Wednesday I heard that Ray Bradbury, one of the great masters of speculative fiction, had died at the age of ninety-one.
I don’t suppose it’s a huge surprise to anyone – ninety-one is a good age to achieve, and from all accounts Bradbury was mentally active up to the end. Still, in a way I suppose it never occurred to me that he would ever not be there.
Ray Bradbury was an incredibly prolific and poetic writer. While Asimov might have had a larger reputation, maybe even a larger ouevre, Bradbury was by far, in my opinion, the better writer. His range ran from the poetic (April Witch, and many of the Martian Chronicles) to the dystopian (Fahrenheit 451) and horror (The Illustrated Man). He wrote cautionary tales like The Pedestrian, warning us of surveillance and regulated conformity. He wrote feelingly about the relationships between people, and with humour and an uncanny prophecy about the human love-hate relationship with technology.
One of my favourite stories of his is The Murderer, where a man has been imprisoned for shooting his house. The house, like all houses, talked to him and managed everything, and he could no longer stand it. All he wanted was peace and quiet – and he was considered crazy. Another is The Illustrated Woman, almost diametrically opposite to The Illustrated Man.
Bradbury knew a lot about going against the grain. Yes, he had a brilliant imagination, which he fed with good reading. Yes, he wrote and wrote and wrote, believing that if you wrote one story a week, at the end of a year you’d have fifty-two short stories and they simply couldn’t all be bad. Those are wonderful things to emulate.
But Bradbury had eight hundred rejections before he sold a story. Imagine that – eight hundred times he heard “Not for us” or “No, thank you”, or, possibly “Don’t give up your day job”. Yet he persisted. Perhaps for those of us who are struggling with the writing life, that is the most inspiring thing about him. Even if you don’t have a Bradburian imagination, you can persist in the face of a world that tells you, “No, thank you” and “Don’t give up your day job”.
The other thing that shines through whenever Bradbury writes about writing is joy. I love how he sees his stories as living things. “A story runs up and bites me on the leg, and I write it down, everything that happens during the bite. Then when I’m done, it lets go and runs away.” Is that not brilliant and wonderful and just laugh-out-loud funny? Stories like little weasels biting his legs until he writes them! I love it!
We’ve lost the physical presence of a great master, not only in speculative fiction, but in the writing life. He’s left us his wisdom, and his joy, and his fine example along with his stories. The best tribute we can pay him is to read, and to write, and to do both with joy.
Godspeed, Mr. Bradbury.